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nintendoll avatar 2:44 PM on 08.12.2011  (server time)
East Vs. West - The Quest for Character Empathy

I wanted to start be referencing a specific article, but unfortunately it seems to be lost within the black hole of the internet. In the article, a Japanese developer said something along the lines of, Eastern games are focused around building, while Western games are concentrate on destroying. Now, I don't believe that to be entirely true. Earth Defense Force 2017 is certainly more destruction based, and games like Civilization and The Sims are based entirely on user creation. What strikes me as a major difference in the types of games developed really comes down to the character representation, and how it connects the player to the game world.

This occurred to me while I was playing Fatal Frame II: Crimson Butterfly. The Fatal Frame series is largely considered one of the best examples of survival horror in gaming. What makes this game so terrifying? Most of the game play involves simply moving around empty rooms, searching for clues broken up by the occasional ghostly assault. Why is it, that no matter how much I tell myself it's just a game, I still can't play this game at night (besides me being a huge wuss)?

The answer is this: the ability to connect to the character. Seeing the character as a full-fledged human being is crucial to making that connection. Whether you believe in ghosts or not, the idea is that ANYONE would be powerless against incorporeal monsters. The player and the protagonist are on equal footing in terms of power within the game world. Think of it realistically: if you lost your sister in a creepy town in the middle of the woods, what would you do? Probably walk around and look for her, right? Because you don't believe in ghosts, so there wouldn't be any danger. By the time you realized you were wrong, it would be too late. Having these things in common with the main character makes it easier to relate to them--as a person, not just as a game avatar.

The character in Fatal Frame isn't a tool to explore the world. How the character interacts with the world is restricted, making the player feel as if they are watching rather than controlling the character's movements. The game uses different camera angles and lighting techniques normally found in cinema to build the relationship between the player and the protagonist. We see her vulnerability because we are able to observe her from every angle without her knowledge. We feel for her because she--like the player--is burdened by the limitations of being human (an example being that she carries the camera as her single weapon). We only see her point of view while she's being attacked: while she is at her weakest state. (The only exception to this is if you bought the Xbox version, which allows the option to play the game from a first-person perspective).

There are of course, other aspects that contribute as well. Probably the most obvious is that your only weapon is a camera. The significance of the camera is that it's a weapon that harms aggressors without actually touching them. It is a reminder that there is no physical protection from the killer ghost townspeople who are wandering around. In addition, ammo (or in this game, film) pick up areas don't regenerate. That's right: if you find all of the film in the game and use it, you're stuck using nothing but the shitty basic film...which is the equivalent of using nothing but a handgun in a traditional FPS.

Now take a game that is developed by an American studio, like Dead Space (keep in mind, I'm not scrutinizing the quality of the game). My experience with this game is a little less extensive, so a lot of what I know of the latter parts of the game are through conversations with others and watching other people play. I already know this will open up to some criticisms, but hey, this game is the best example for comparison.

In Dead Space, you play as a full grown man with up-gradable space armor with (relatively) convenient access to weapons. This moves the focus of the game away from the character and towards the items and abilities he can utilize. Isaac moves around the environment with his back to the player, severing the connection to the most recognizable aspect of people: the face. On most of the occasions we do get to see his face, all we get is the glow-in-the-dark can he wears as a helmet. Even Isaac's profession, as an engineer on a spaceship, is difficult for the average person to wrap their head around. While the weapons in the game mostly focus on an engineering background, we take another small step away from reality when he quickly adapts to using and modifying the tools of his trade to kill instead of repair. In addition, most people I've spoken to (and many forums I've visited) complain that by a certain point in the game, they felt their character was too powerful and the game lost some of its fear factor.

The second point of interest here is that the camera can be moved around at will. This gives the player a significantly larger amount of control than the character in the game. Putting more control into the players' hands prevents them from from seeing the character as a separate personality. The player controls what the character sees and interacts with (as opposed to Fatal Frame, where the camera is set specifically so the player and the character experience certain events together). The character is now an extension of the player, and is more of a Swiss Army Knife than a character in terms of his function within the game. The times we can connect with him are when there are cutscenes involving the plot. The only problem is, since the player has spent so much time in action-oriented scenarios like solving puzzles and shooting enemies, these moments feel more like breaks for the player than anything else.

In both Dead Space and Fatal Frame II, you control a protagonist searching for someone they love. However, the latter denies the player they control usually granted in third-person games, limiting the character's abilities to those of a normal human being. The former give the player abilities beyond what's currently feasible for a human. The draw of Fatal Frame, and in fact of many Asian-developed games, is the character and story development that pulls you into the full experience. A North American-developed game holds it's own be creating a detailed fantasy world that relies more heavily on the player using the main character as a tool for physically interacting with and exploring that world.

So which technique lends itself better to survival horror? Well, given that Fatal Frame II: Crimson Butterfly is a last-gen game released in 2003 that retails for $30 used, and Dead Space was released in 2008 and retail price new is around $20...well, I think the East wins on this one.

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